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The laws of physics that govern the smallest of particles—small molecules, atoms, and electrons—are different than the laws we observe in our daily lives. These quantum interactions are intriguing to scientists from many disciplines.
At a Michigan workshop aimed at bringing scientists involved in quantum science together, physical chemist Eitan Geva presented the Michigan Chemistry approach to tackling the leading problems in quantum science and technology research. “I think the most important problem in this quantum technology business is to find the right materials. Chemistry, in a sense, is materials science in a molecular manner,” Geva explains. “We know as chemists that by manipulating molecules, you can manipulate performance and functionality.”
The molecules that many chemists study are large, and the kinetics of their reactions with one another often obey classical mechanics. As a result, chemistry is not traditionally thought of as a quantum science field. However, the individual atoms and electrons within those same molecules adhere strongly to quantum mechanics. Many molecular properties, such as the way electronic excitation energy is created and transferred in solar cells or photosynthetic systems, are inherently quantum and can only be understood by studying the quantum physics that controls them.
Of the many scientists devoted to studying the quantum physics that underlies chemical and biological systems, Geva highlighted the work of six chemistry research labs in his presentation at the workshop: three from experimental physical chemistry and three from theoretical and computational chemistry.
Quantum Science & Quantum Technology
Quantum science is the study of the laws of physics that govern the smallest of particles, such as small molecules, atoms, and electrons.
Quantum mechanics enables these particles to behave in ways that are impossible for larger objects that obey the laws of classical physics.
Quantum technology is any technology that uses quantum behaviors. The goal is to be more efficient than classical physics-based technology or to complete tasks that are impossible for classical technology. Quantum technologies are commonly applied to computing, communication, information, and sensing.
Experimental researchers in the Goodson, Kubarych, and Sension labs are using laser spectroscopy to measure molecular properties and monitor molecular dynamics when light and matter interact. This light-matter interaction excites the electrons in molecules, causing them to move around and find different ways to transfer their newly received energy to other places. Applications such as renewable energy sources, microscopy, photochemistry, and catalysis can be drastically improved if chemists learn how to take advantage of these quantum properties in molecules.
Three theoretical and computational research labs—Geva, Zgid, and Zimmerman groups—are developing mathematical models and computer algorithms for a range of quantum chemistry calculations. Their algorithms would make calculation of electronic structure, molecular properties, and dynamics one of the most essential applications of quantum computing.
Using improved models and quantum computers with enhanced computational power, theoretical chemists will be able to study how molecules interact and evolve with their surrounding environments, even explaining phenomenon that may still be elusive to experimental chemists. The experimental and theoretical research groups often collaborate as they identify how the structure of certain molecules can enhance the quantum behavior compared to other molecules, allowing the chemists to predict and design new molecules to enhance the quantum behavior even more.
The Michigan Quantum Science and Technology Workshop, held in April 2019, was a response to the growing interest in the United States in developing quantum technologies that can outperform current classical-based technologies. It aimed to establish UM’s long term view for moving forward with quantum research. The US federal government recently passed the National Quantum Initiative as a commitment to investing heavily in quantum research throughout the country.
Michigan Chemistry was well represented with professors, post docs, and graduate students who incorporate quantum science into their chemistry research. Also participating were scientists from Michigan’s physics, electrical engineering and computer science, materials science and engineering, biophysics, mechanical engineering, chemical engineering, mathematics, and astronomy departments.
A primary workshop goal was to build a community of researchers in departments across the UM campus. The workshop included six talks on research projects, poster sessions showcasing quantum research projects. Researchers from other universities and industry offered their perspective on the future in this area.
Geva points out that establishing a unified quantum research effort at UM will require further discussions and collaborations among quantum researchers across different departments. While chemists, physicists, and engineers may have slightly different educational backgrounds, researchers from all of these fields are working in what Geva considers its own branch of science: quantum science.
The more that researchers learn about quantum mechanics and the various ways it appears in all the traditional branches of science, researchers in the field say, the clearer it becomes that quantum science is an inherently interdisciplinary field. “Part of what I learned from this process is that I am a quantum scientist,” says Geva. “The crossing point between chemistry, materials science, engineering, and physics is where all the breakthrough is going to come from. Combining forces is so important. There’s a whole universe out there just waiting to be explored for quantum technology.”
Michigan Quantum Science and Technology Working Group an ad hoc collaboration of College of Literature, Science, and Arts and College of Engineering Information on the workshop as well as quantum research at Michigan
Theoretical and computational research labs